My experience was with the folks themselves

Posted by | January 30, 2013

My neighbor across the creek is already up and busy with his saw and hammer, despite it being Sunday, despite his having worked in the mines all the other six days of the week, often in water shoe-mouth deep, as he tells me, and in spite of there not being a plank requiring sawing or a nail needing driven.

He must be doing something, just as I, propped up here by pillows on my four-post walnut bed, itself a creation of Jethro Amburgey, the dulcimer maker. I find I’ve written seven pages in a notebook — extraneous matter, hardly any page belonging in subject to any other, pages looking toward books or manuscripts partially written, or only projected to a number I could not possibly complete given my age and biological life span.

The lady who once asked me, “Do you do your own writing?” and to whom I replied, “No, I have seven dwarves,” has lately inquired, “Where do you get your ideas?” For me ideas are hanging from limbs like pears, from fences like gourds. They rise up like birds from cover. They spring out of reports in the Troublesome Creek Times, from a remark in a country store, a happening.

author James StillFrom childhood I’ve been a reader, when there was anything to read, and I suppose I’ve read an average of three hours a day for half a century. Reading jaunts with mountain climbers in the Himalayas, the South Pacific, the American Civil War, World War I, the mysteries of Mayan civilization to name a few tangents, and the entire corpus of many an author. Curiousity like an itch that needs scratching.

The question is often asked: “Who influenced you to write?” Certainly it wasn’t handed down in the family, and I can’t think of an author I wish to emulate although I have admired the works of many. I was already scribbling before the great books came to hand. As an English observer of Appalachian folk in Harlan County, Kentucky, said, “Not knowing the right way to do things they did things their way.” I did encounter the novels of Thomas Hardy during college days and the fact that I’ve always written about the common man may have been sparked by him.

The only class I ever cut was when I was deep in Far From the Madding Crowd and could not put the book down. The most memorable book read in college, and in French, was Alphonse Daudet’s Le Petit Chose. I must grant some credit to a decade of issues of the Atlantic I came upon during the late 1920s. Otto Jespersen’s The Philosophy of Grammar directed me toward “living language” as opposed to the formal.

It took time, my own time, to figure out the King of England is a myth, and all that implies — the myths we live by, county lines, state lines, imaginary acts made actual by acceptance. I learned an apple is a modified leaf. My self-education proceeded from such facts. I am more an autodidact than a classroom scholar.

“How did you escape the stereotype ‘hillbilly’ writing?” — a frequent question. That is, the stereotypical mountaineer and his dialectical speech as rendered by several authors of fiction in the past. I was hardly aware of them, didn’t have access to their books. My experience was with the folks themselves.

As for handling dialect in my fictions and Notebooks, the way folk actually talk, well, now, dialect of any sort on a printed page always bothered me. Peculiar spellings can’t account for the tone of voice, body language, the intent behind the statement. My aim is to invoke speech. To expect the true sound of it to happen in the reader’s head. Aberrant spelling rarely accomplishes it. I trust to preserve the “voice” of the speaker.

I answered a set of down-to-earth questions at Carmus Combs’ store the other day. A fellow inquired, “How many years have you lived amongst us?”
“This year makes forty-six.”
“You’re the last ‘possum up the tree. Everybody your age when you come here are dead. Hain’t that so?”
“I thought they’d live forever.”
“What’s your notion about dying?”
“Death is as natural as sleep,” I said, quoting Benjamin Franklin. “We will arise refreshed in the morning.”

My neighbor is still hammering and sawing. He has apparently decided on something to build — a doghouse, a chicken coop, perhaps a playpen for his children. He will not halt until it is accomplished. It is his act of creation.

from “Autobiography of James Still,” November 2003, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series; vol. 17, Gale Research
online at

A native of Alabama, author James Still (1906-2001) spent most of his life in the Hindman Settlement of Knott County, KY. In addition to his writing, Still worked as a farmer, librarian and teacher. Winner of many literary awards, including two Guggenheim fellowships, Still published novels, short stories and poems which reflected his passionate feelings for the Kentucky mountains.

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